Pioneering modern British social realism, several female filmmakers are working to revive one of the most distinctive movements of national cinema, with Andrea Arnold, Joanna Hogg and Clio Barnard among others working to revolutionise the influential film style. Morphing the cinematic movement into something more modern, dynamic and consumable in comparison to its 1960s past, such filmmakers have inspired a form of social realism that creates fertile ground for further development, rivalling such classics as Saturday Night Sunday Morning and Billy Liar.
Barnard has proven herself as one of the pioneers of this modern revival, bringing the compelling documentary The Arbor to cinemas in 2013, followed by The Selfish Giant in 2013, an emotionally stirring coming of age drama that stands as her very best work. This is despite the director’s latest romantic drama, Ali & Ava, giving it a good run for its money, telling a tender modern love story that breathes some much-needed optimism into contemporary Britain.
Set in the cultural hotpot of Bradford in the North of England, Barnard’s kind-hearted story emanates from the vibrant streets where Ali (Adeel Akhtar), a former DJ turned landlord, meets Ava (Claire Rushbrook), a teaching assistant who works closely with his young family friend. As their fragile lives are deconstructed piece by piece, the two souls grow ever closer, becoming catalysts for change in each others’ tumultuous lives.
Led by the meticulous direction and script of Barnard, who access a deeper truth to the lives of her two central characters that exposes bruises of the past and glimmers of joyous hope for the future, we are given a profound view of two lives in desperate love. Urgently compassionate, the directorial scope is unique, careful and nuanced, providing a refreshing view of the female gaze in its translation of love in contemporary Britain.
With no nudity or scenes of grandiose affection, the love that Clio Barnard presents is utterly pure, instilling more emotion in a quiet moment of a tender touch, conveying the nuanced feeling of a first kiss through the careful control of cinematic elements. Such is, of course, sparked into life by the tremendous performances of both Akhtar and Rushbrook whose chemistry pulsates through the screen; their love for each other painted in their wide smiles.
Interested not just in Ali and Ava, Barnard’s tender touch extends over each and every character of the film, revealing an equally compelling story in the coming of age dilemma of Ava’s hot-tempered, brittle son, Callum, played with superb dramatic control by Shaun Thomas. In this, the film embodies something far more, becoming a raw, emotional drama about the fragility of relationships and the intricacy of human connection.
Lying just beneath the surface is a soundtrack that interweaves through the characters and story, supporting the narrative with the music of Karen Dalton, Buzzcocks and Bob Dylan providing a clash of identity that bolsters the film and merges seamlessly.
Truly one of the greatest modern love stories since Aleem Khan’s After Love, Barnard crafts a charming tale that excavates into the soul of its characters and finds a profound truth. It’s a soft, quiet, compassionate cinematic poem.